SOFT lights throw a soothing blue glow over the room, it is peaceful and calm, and eight-month-old baby Brooke is deeply fascinated by the bubble-filled tube that sends little fish bobbing up and down.
She wraps stubby baby fingers around it, mesmerised by the colours and the relentless flow of bubbles, her eyes full of wonder.
Everything around her brings young senses to life. Beside her a soft fabric on the wall is dotted with tiny lights like a glittering night sky, there’s a fluffy rug that begs to be nuzzled into, a warm and wobbly water bed through which music plays making it vibrate gently and fibre optic straws that bend and wave and make little girls who wrap themselves up in them feel like mini-princesses.
Of course, sensory rooms like this one are increasingly used for children with special needs, disabilities and learning difficulties. But what makes this one so very different is that among its young visitors are some of the most fragile and vulnerable children around.
For it’s in here with the lights dimmed, a lullaby softly playing, cloudy images of balloons projected on to the walls, that little people from homes in an Edinburgh estate blighted for years by drink, drugs, abuse and chaos can come to sit, think and maybe even forget.
Brooke’s eyes dart around the room seeking out something else to focus on while her mum, Alesha Anderson, 25, watches. Before Brooke was born her mother’s life was a blur. Now gently supported by the centre’s staff, she’s learning vital parenting skills while her baby girl retreats to the room to enjoy the peace and the calm of the soothing lights and the gentle music.
“She loves it,” says Alesha, smiling as Brooke crawls towards a brightly coloured patchwork beanbag. “She’s quite a content wee girl anyway, but as soon as she comes in here, she settles right down.”
Staff see daily the dramatic impact the newly opened room can have on some children from particularly difficult backgrounds, such as the little ones who have retreated into a world of near silence and with serious little faces who slowly break into giggles and even find their voices as they play at making the lights change colour by talking into a microphone.
And there are others who simply find a much needed place of comfort to “chill out” in, away from a home life that’s messy and unravelled: such as the little two-year-old boy and his big brother, both confused and frightened by dramas at home who came in, sat, looked around at the colours, smiled rare smiles and just cuddled each other.
“The children we see often have emotional difficulties, and that’s where the sensory room plays a part,” explains Moira McGachan, left, manager at Hailesland Early Years Centre in Wester Hailes. “Children can have ‘child protected time’ within the room, they can have educational, social and emotional needs met. It is a great tool.”
While some of the 60 local families that come to the centre are there simply for support at times of need, others, explains Moira, have deep rooted problems that without guidance could easily filter through and affect their children.
“There can be addiction issues,” says Moira. “Some parents we see have issues like drug abuse, mental health problems, domestic violence. There are parents who need support because of personal traumas, perhaps there has been a bereavement or maybe the parents just feel quite isolated.”
And, sadly, there are children who arrive with stomach churning stories of abuse and neglect. Tiny people, who, without intervention and care, could be destined to simply repeat the pattern. That element is a depressing and often hidden facet of Edinburgh life, says the successful businessman whose generous gesture has just made the new sensory room a reality.
Richard Dixon was raised in Wester Hailes and as his vet business, Vets Now, expanded into a UK-wide award-winning organisation valued at millions of pounds, he was determined to give something back to the community that raised him. Curious to see what he could do to help, he visited the centre – and was left reeling at the complexity of problems affecting many local families.
“We often don’t realise just what is on our own doorstep, there are people with real challenges and some that just need a bit of help,” he explains.
“I spoke to staff and found one issue they face is that a lot of children at the centre come from sometimes quite challenging environment at home. Parents can have quite chaotic lifestyles and the staff noticed the babies and children were finding it hard to relax so they could start working with them.
“The sensory room, then, is about trying to bring them down, calm them and relax them so they can spend the rest of their time at the centre more productively.
“It’s been an incredible experience to be involved in,” he adds.
Once a space for staff lockers, the room now contains some of the latest technology – an apparently ordinary multicoloured plastic cube, for example, turns out to be a brilliant gadget that dictates the room’s light and sound depending on how it’s handled, helping little people gain some control over their own environment.
Early Years Officer Shevaun Erskine picks up a microphone and blows gently into it, demonstrating how even the softest sound can trigger a rainbow of lights to dazzle on the wall beside her. “It’s about encouraging communication,” she explains. “Using this can encourage speech and sounds – the children learn to use their voice, they find that the louder they talk, the more colours they can light up.”
Children use the centre up to three times a week, visiting playrooms or the sensory room, toddling around the garden while their parents develop new skills and talk through their anxieties. Centre staff also work with army families at Redford Barracks who may be experiencing stress and worry over loved ones and isolation from relatives, and there are school-based parenting skills groups, too.
The work being done there has impacted on Richard and his Vets Now staff so much that they have “adopted” the centre, returning to help tend the garden and do odd jobs. And he is involved in setting up a new charity, The Bedrock Charity, which aims to put businesses in touch with places like the Early Years Centre, so they can help break the cycle that often leads to one generation’s problems being passed on to the next.
“It has been a real opener,” he adds. “We all go through life thinking everything’s fine, we hear about the odd horror story but it’s a long way away. Then you come somewhere like this and realise that right here on your doorstep are major challenges being faced by people day in and day out.
“When you see the impact that has on young children and how they grow and develop – and it’s not because parents don’t want to do a good job for their children, often they have had a difficult home environment too.
“It seems ridiculous not to want to do something.”
There’s room for improvement
The multi-sensory room at Hailesland Early Learning Centre has been donated by Richard Dixon, founder of Vets Now.
A one-time pupil at nearby Hailesland Primary School, he lived in the area until his family moved to Brunstfield and then Dalkeith.
A veterinary surgeon, he founded Vets Now in 2001 after becoming concerned at the stress faced by vets who were expected to be on call round the clock.
The UK-wide business operates an emergency, out-of-hours vet service linked to 600 practices around the UK. The father-of-three now lives in Fife.
He is currently involved in the launch of The Bedrock Charity, which aims to connect businesses with early years organisations - in particular those which support vulnerable children - so they can pass on vital funding, skills and assistance. To find out more about Vets Now go to www.vets-now.com and The Bedrock Charity at www.bedrockcharity.org.